A Clear and Pheasant Danger

Though I know a lot more about it than the average tree-spiking enviro-Nazi, I’m by no means an expert on alternative energy sources. My colleagues Byron King and Eric Fry, as examples, are far more versed than I am on where we’re headed energy-wise — and which among the newest technologies are realistic, viable, and sustainable replacements for oil.

However, one doesn’t have to be an expert to see a lot of very obvious flaws in the “ethanol intoxication” that so many Americans (including our president) seem to be so blindly buzzing on these days. Ethanol’s critics claim that current methods of producing the alcohol for use as a motor fuel represent little, if any, actual energy benefit on the balance…

Even the most optimistic numbers paint a picture of marginal benefits: about 1.25 units of bioethanol energy yielded per unit of fossil fuels consumed to produce it.

The most zealous (or ignorant, depending on how you look at it) ethanol advocates are convinced that even this meager benefit is worth revamping America’s vehicle industry and vehicular fuel infrastructure. Tomorrow’s technologies will be more efficient in the transformation of fossil energy to bioethanol energy, they insist. And the fringe benefits, they like to trumpet, include a reduced dependence on foreign oil and a cleaner environment…

This last bit may be technically true — since ethanol does indeed burn cleaner than gasoline. However, most folks who don’t know any better equate ethanol’s “cleaner” emissions with “less global warming” emissions. This is a myth that the pro-ethanol (anti-oil) crowd does nothing to dispel among the throngs of their Prius-driving, Gore-worshipping supporters.

The reality, however, is that ethanol still produces copious amounts of carbon dioxide when burned, much like gasoline. And since it yields LESS mileage and horsepower than gasoline in typical internal combustion engines (which means more of it must be used to go the same distance under the same power), it’s arguable that ethanol consumption is worse for the environment than gasoline — from a “greenhouse gas” standpoint. Ethanol is really only cleaner in the sense that it produces far less carbon monoxide than gasoline consumption…

Don’t get me wrong: Less carbon monoxide is a good thing for the environment, in that it makes the air less toxic to breathe, especially in smog-choked urban areas. But to say, as so many do these days, that burning ethanol in place of gasoline would help to curb global warming — assuming the truth of the far-from-proven notion that it’s caused by man-made CO2 emissions — is just plain wrong. The grand (or tragic) irony that no one in the pro-ethanol camp wants their army of tree-hugger cheerleaders to know is this:

Even if ethanol did represent concrete and significant economic or atmospheric benefits from reducing U.S. oil consumption, an aggressive domestic movement toward the large-scale adaptation of bioethanol vehicular fuels almost certainly represents a net environmental — and quite likely fiscal — NEGATIVE.

And it’s already starting…

Feathers Fly as Croplands Creep

The current tide in ethanol theory is toward the mass adaptation of “bioethanol” alcohol that’s made from crops like corn (even though as source material goes, corn is relatively poor for ethanol production). What most people don’t realize is that even if domestic demand for vehicle fuel were to remain static in the future though a series of magical quantum leaps in vehicle fuel efficiency, it would take far more acreage worth of arable farmland than is currently allocated to corn growth in the U.S. to generate enough corn to make bioethanol even debatably worthwhile…

This means that in order to make the switch to ethanol, MORE land across the “fruited plain” would have to be cleared, cultivated, fertilized, sprayed with pesticides, and converted into cropland. The net result is a lot of extra pollution of waterways, greater soil erosion, increased silting and warming of stream and river fisheries, very likely a certain amount of deforestation (quite a quandary for tree-huggers) – and, last but not least, large-scale destruction of America’s wildlife habitat.

In other words, an environmental nightmare.

These downsides are already being felt, even though the mass adaptation of bioethanol is still in its infancy. Case in point: South Dakota’s pheasant population.

Numbers of ring-necked pheasants, that perennial favorite of American game birds (ironically imported from Asia in the late 1800s), have boomed in South Dakota over the last 20 years — due in no small part to the establishment of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program. For those who don’t know, the CRP is a comparatively modest subsidy program that grants financial and technical assistance to farmers and landowners who are willing to restore easily eroded and polluted agricultural acreage to a natural state of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and riparian “buffer zones.”

These lands are invaluable habitat for all manner of wildlife — but especially upland game bird species like quail, pheasants, turkeys, and other species. According to USDA data, pheasant populations alone have jumped 22% for every 4% increase in CRP lands within known pheasant habitat zones…

Now, you may not think that, on the balance, increasing the pheasant population in Midwestern and Plains states is anywhere near as economically important as planting more corn for ethanol. But in South Dakota — the nation’s pheasant hunting capital — the numbers make a pretty powerful case. Every year:

  • Pheasant hunting pours $135-153 million into the Mount Rushmore state’s economy
  • Nonresident hunters — the vast majority of which come to South Dakota to hunt pheasants — spend $143 million on retail-priced gear and supplies
  • Upland bird hunting in South Dakota (again, the bulk of which is for pheasants) supports over $51 million in wages paid, over $6 million in fuel and sales taxes, and over $4 million in federal income taxes.

Bottom line: Pheasant hunting and related tourism is just one example of a major economic boon to not just South Dakota, but many other U.S. states. And a huge percentage of this money — not to mention a huge percentage of the wildlife — is facilitated by privately owned lands that are part of the CRP land restoration program…

But now, because of booming demand for a fuel product that’s driven by misguided notions about its environmental benefits, a lot of this land may soon be in jeopardy. According to an Associated Press article from Feb. 7, President Bush’s latest budget proposal would back burner CRP, freezing new enrollments in the program through 2008.

The USDA expects this move to result in an 8% decline in CRP acreage nationwide over just the next 21 months as farmers eager to capitalize on the ethanol-charged price of corn revert this acreage back to croplands. The agency predicts corn will top $3.60/bushel this year, an 80% increase over 2005’s $2/bushel price.

And since Congress’ 2005 energy bill stipulates that the U.S. nearly double its production of ethanol by 2012, this price will only keep going up. So will the number of acres that are pulled out of CRP’s protection and converted back into waterway-polluting, erosive, wildlife-barren, pesticide-laced cornfields.

Amber Waves of Greed

It’s easy for politicians to get behind ethanol. For them, it’s a solution to several problems. Ratcheting up rhetoric about reducing American dependence on foreign oil opens the door for BOTH increased domestic petroleum production and the pursuit of new energy sources. One of these (bioethanol) also boosts the government’s bottom line in at least three ways: less money spent on CRP; less money spent in farm subsidies spurred by historic overabundances of corn; and greater revenue from now-booming farms’ income taxes, refinery taxes, and, yes, even fuel taxes (ethanol can’t be pipelined — it must be trucked to wherever it’s being blended or used)…

And because of the widespread misapprehension that ethanol adaptation is a net positive for the environment, politicians also get to appear “green” — while pocketing lots more of the only kind of green that really matters to them.

So no wonder Bush and friends are all about ethanol. Big Oil isn’t necessarily hurt by the movement (it may even be helped domestically), Big Agro gets a major boost from it, and the tree-huggers are appeased even as they LOSE a major battle in their fight to protect the environment. And as usual, the feds laugh all the way to the bank!

This brings me to my final point. One of the great ironies about today’s typically uninformed environmental zealotry comes when conflicting conservation goals meet in the political arena. In America today, we’re poised ringside at the opening bell of such a brawl, where one very real species of bona-fide conservation is pitted against another of a largely theoretical stripe…

In the red-white-and-blue corner, we have a champion fighting for most Americans’ desire for cleaner waterways; the restoration of wetlands, forests, grasslands, and buffer zones; wildlife conservation and expansion; and the large-scale preservation of myriad recreational opportunities (especially hunting and fishing, but not limited to them) — along with their enormous and wide-reaching economic benefits.

And in the supposedly “green” corner, we have a champion who claims to be fighting to break the back of foreign oil for everyone’s benefit — but only truly representing the economic interests of a few in the process: Big Agro, Big Oil (especially if it results in more domestic drilling), and Big Guv.

I hope that at the final bell, our grand countryside is still dotted with woodlots, wetlands, rolling grassy plains, hedgerows, briar patches, thickets, and dense river drainages where wildlife abounds — and where clear, cool, unpolluted-by-fertilizer streams and rivers are still teeming with fish…

But I fear it’ll be one great lifeless sea of corn, where no man treads with dog or gun and where no beast larger than a groundhog flourishes — interrupted only by highways teeming with streamlined, generic micro-cars running on $3-a-gallon ethanol fuels.

Does that sound like “America the Beautiful” to you?

Wringing necks for ring-necks,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

March 15, 2007

The Daily Reckoning